In 2001, Kevin DeWhitt packed an office cubicle from floor to ceiling with plastic, melted it, filled a truck's gas tank with the liquid goo, and then drove around the perimeter of Kelso, Wash., twice. What, he wondered, if this could be done on a much larger scale? Three years later, the chemist formed Agilyx in Tigard, Ore.
Turning plastic into fuel isn't novel; energy- and land-restricted areas of Asia have long done it, for example. But making Agilyx commercially viable in the U.S. required millions in investment and the cooperation of waste managers and refineries. DeWhitt kept it simple: Create technology to go where the waste stream is, and let refineries transform the oil into usable road fuels.
"If we can reuse the hydrocarbons in plastic," says DeWhitt, Americans won't have to drill for more oil "to replace what we buried in a landfill." The petroleum can also be used to create other materials that aren't burned. The U.S. recycles less than 10 percent of plastics, mostly bottles; the rest gets tossed into landfills or shipped to Asia.
The Agilyx system used by Waste Management in north Portland, Ore., can take up to 50 tons per day of dirty, oily, hard-to-recycle mixed plastic, such as the plastic film and tubing used in agriculture. Heat from the reactor breaks up the long, heavy polymer chains and converts them to a gas. After cooling in the condenser, light, sweet crude oil oozes out. The byproducts include water, small quantities of inert char and burnable gases, leaving a trivial environmental footprint.
Last year, the U.S. consumed around 18.5 million barrels of oil per day. Agilyx's setup can capture enough fuel to fill more than 200 SUV tanks each day. In addition to Waste Management, companies in Minnesota and Georgia have already adopted Agilyx's technology. At least four other U.S.-based plastics-to-oil companies are trying to get into the game on a commercial scale, and several others with operations overseas hope to expand into the U.S. There's plenty of waste for everyone, says DeWhitt. "Let's just make sure between us we get it all."